If you are like most people, not audiophiles, your only exposure to Toots Thielemans is “The Streetbeater”, AKA the theme from Sanford and Son. Born Jean Baptiste Thielemans, April 29th, 1922, in Brussels, Belgium, Toots is the guy laying down the funky multitracked lines on harmonica, making it one of the most recognizable themes in TV history, and Thielemans one of the most famous unknown people in pop-culture history; everyone knows that sound, but doesn’t know the man.
What’s astonishing about Toots is his complete ease with every style of music he touched. With many jazz musicians, they sounded like a fish out of water when confronted with strings, or an aggressive producer looking for a commercial hit. The way Toots changed styles and settings with facility makes him extremely rare in music history. The only people of comparable ability are the ace session musicians from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The Allmusic Guide gives these as Toot’s styles: Bop, Brazilian Jazz, Contemporary Jazz, Latin Jazz, World Fusion, Post-Bop, Standards, Straight-Ahead Jazz and Film Score. He is most famous for his chromatic harmonica, but plays guitar with equal facility, though in a different style, whistles (he did the Old Spice commercial way back when), composes, arranges and could probably do a lot more if he really wanted. It’s no surprise to me that he and Quincy Jones, another musical chameleon, worked together many times. A guy like Toots would be a Swiss Army Knife for Q.
I’m saying all this because I took him for granted. I didn’t know he played guitar or that his musical hero was Django, also born Jean Baptiste in Belgium. I didn’t know he was the guy whistling in a particular Quincy Jones track, sounding more like a synthesizer than a real person. I now know this because of the new release from Out Of The Blue records……
Yesterday & Today
Out Of The Blue 2LP or 2CD set
This diverse set of tracks spans 1946, just following the end of the war in Europe, to 2001, showcasing Toots’ ability to span genres and work with just about anyone. Some of the tracks are extremely rare and unless you are a dedicated Toots collector, you are unlikely to find them.
His first tracks find him on guitar, his first instrument of choice, and sounding a lot like his musical hero, Django Reinhardt. “Jazz Band Ball”, the first cut, sounds a decade behind his American counterparts (this was recorded in Brussels, Feb 1946). It sounds a lot like “hot jazz” from the ‘30s. The sound is primitive, but you can definitely hear Thielemans’ innate ability to improvise and phrase (something granted from God I think). There isn’t the technical virtuosity that you hear later, but there is musicality.
“It Had To Be Bird” is very interesting when compared to the first track. It was recorded in Paris, May 1949, and with a more progressive style. Though he doesn’t sound like a Charlie Christian clone, the bop style and bop chordal structure are present. I’m sure he had heard a lot of American Jazz at that point, especially being in Paris at the time.
“Nalen Boogie” is so different from the first two that without context you’d just assume it was a different artist. Toots picks up the chromatic harmonica on this track, and plays a boogie-woogie style jazz (kind of a ‘40s juke-joint sound), but with a hint of ‘50s Exotica.
How about some Rock n’ Roll, meets The Munsters, underpinned by a blues shuffle and a John Philip Sousa musical quote, the Stars and Stripes, I believe. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but you’ll have to take my word. On “Red Devils Boogie,” he is playing something similar to early rock and roll, or maybe rhythm and blues. I’m guessing he heard some of the “race records” coming from America, but we still find him in Europe—Brussels, June 1951.
The New World
NYC, June ’52. Plopped down in the most exciting place for music in the world at that time, Toots isn’t exactly cutting bebop records for Blue Note. “Dynamite” is, again, totally different from the previous tracks. His harmonica wouldn’t sound out of place on the Benny Hill Show, or as incidental music for Woody Allen. It’s just “out there”, with crazy style, but utilizing what sounds like a prototypical military march structure (think Sousa again). By the way, Sousa was the equivalent to the Elvis of his day. Sousa was world famous, doing international tours, and having his music published in many countries. Everyone knew Sousa in the fist half of the 20th century, so it doesn’t surprise me to hear influences. This track is just wild-assed fun.
September of ’53 finds Toots and his harmonica with George Shearing playing a slightly camp version of “Caravan”, but all in excellent taste. I don’t associate harmonicas with the Middle East.
From there we move to January of ’58, and there is a remarkable growth in his harmonica playing. I wrote down “inspired” and “virtuosic”. “Cool And Easy” is serious jazz with great backing musicians: Hank Jones, Doug Watkins and Art Taylor.
“Lullaby of Jazzland,” recorded in May of 1964, and we hear a master, a fully mature musician, among peers. Playing his guitar with The Eminent JJ Johnson, master of jazz trombone, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, half of the Coltrane Quartet, and bassist Richard Davis, a musician of similar versatility compared to Toots, the performance and production values are absolutely first rate. Produced by Bob Thiele, this is fine music of the highest caliber. Toots’ playing is very bop-ish; very tonal and with a little bit of soul, not quite “hard bop.” That’s one thing that can be said about Thielemans—he wasn’t a member of the avant garde, and was too talented to resort to gimmicks.
By 12-65, the Samba and Latin jazz had crept into just about every nook and cranny in jazz-dom. On “Tin Tin Deo,” we have Toots back on harp, and playing some very influential solos, or that’s my take on it. He makes good use of the chromatic harmonica’s ability to bend notes, ending phrases with a descending semitone. It’s very evocative of something I can’t put a finger on, but perhaps the Latin approach to life and work. I don’t know. What I do know is that I heard this copied by several players in the ‘70s. The sound on this track is smoooooth and laid back.
Recorded in 1973, Quincy Jones’ “Chump Change” showcases Toots’ absolutely incredible whistling. I really mean incredible. Because it’s multitracked, we hear both the harmonica and his whistling. The track is funky and great fun. Q might be the greatest producer of popular music—ever. He gets the most out of every musician and every tune. The musicians on this cut are some of the best available in the LA studio circuit. There’s more talent on this one studio date than all the “X Factor” and “American Idol” episodes combined (that includes the judges).
My favorite track, and worth the asking price for this one tune, is a gorgeous version of Ellington’s “Black Beauty”. Toots’ unaccompanied solo guitar is captured live in concert in the Netherlands. The playing is beautiful, as is the music.
The rest of the tracks run from inspired to novelty to safe, but are excellent. This compilation will not bore those of you that prefer constant variety. No two tracks are the same. The same thing can be said of the sound. The audio runs from primitive to audiophile quality, but much of it is good. The pressing is excellent, though I suspect mine was slightly heat-damaged from sitting at my front door, baking under the afternoon sun and 105º. The mastering and pressing are European, but from digital sources. It doesn’t say ADA, but there is a little hardness in the treble that I associate with the analog-digital-analog process. It might be that the records were affected by the heat. Either way, I recommend buying the CD and using that as a basis for buying other records.
This is a sampler, and the best use of a sampler it figuring out what you really want. You may hate some tracks and lover others. With an artist as versatile as Toots, that’s to be expected. As a retrospective, it accomplishes its objective. My only complaint is that the tracks don’t give the label and catalog number of the original release. I didn’t know that much about Toots Thielemans, and definitely didn’t appreciate his diverse talents. I bet that after hearing these tracks, you’ll feel the same.
Organic Music Society
Caprice-distributed by Naxos-CAP 21828
2LP set, pressed in the EU
There are two types of people: those that listen to “Within You Without You” and those who skip to “When I’m Sixty-Four”. If you are the former, you might enjoy this adventurous jazz-world music tinged with Eastern and Latin influences from Don Cherry. If you are the latter, then you should listen to the snippets at All Music. I crave variety in music, so there was much to ponder, and even enjoy, on this 2 record set.
For years, this was only available on difficult to find, out of print, imported vinyl. Originally issued in Europe, prices for mint copies went as high as $230. This reissue marks the first time that it’s available on CD, which isn’t very organic. Considering the ethos, vinyl is apropos.
From the Wiki entry:
“North Brazilian Ceremonial Hymn (Nana Vasconcelos) – 12:25
“Elixir” (Don Cherry) – 6:08
“Manusha Raga Kamboji” (Hans Isgren) – 2:19
“Relativity Suite” (Don Cherry) – 18:52
“Terry’s Tune” (version one) (Terry Riley) – 1:56
“Hope” (Don Cherry) – 10:08
“The Creator Has A Master Plan” (Pharoah Sanders/Leon Thomas) – 6:28
“Sidhartha” (Don Cherry) – 1:59
“Utopia & Visions” (Don Cherry) – 6:33
“Bra Joe From Kilimanjaro” (Dollar Brand) – 2:33
“Terry’s Tune” (version two) (Terry Riley) – 5:10
“Resa” (Don Cherry) – 5:41
Don Cherry – trumpet, piano, harmonium, vocals
Tommy Goldman, Tommy Koverhult – flute
Maffy Falay – trumpet
H’suan – trumpet, percussion
Hans Isgren – sarangi
Nana Vasconcelos – berimbau, percussion
Helen Eggert, Moki Cherry – tambura, vocals
Chris Bothen – doussn’gouni
Tage Siven – bass
Okay Temiz – drums
Bengt Berger – drums percussion
This is experimental music, combining western tonal music, Indian, South American and jazz practices into early “world music”. As world music, it isn’t as clichéd as much that came after it. It’s not watered down to the point that you can’t discern the Indian from the South American from the jazz, where it becomes background music for a gathering of faux-intellectual poseurs. It’s challenging, gritty and as the name implies, organic.
The modern use of the word “organic” has come to mean something quite different from Don Cherry’s meaning. In opposition to composed music of the Europeans, Cherry’s influences mostly come from the brown and yellow people of the world—their folk tunes and indigenous instruments, all of which were made by “regular people” and passed down from generation to generation. This isn’t music that is composed and put on paper; rather it’s learned from your elders and will evolve and change over time.
Recorded at different places by different people from the spring of 1971 to the summer of 1972, the music, personnel, and sound is constantly changing. The first track happens to be the least interesting and have the poorest sound quality. It’s needlessly repetitive and boring, even if it’s a “North Brazilian Ceremonial Hymn”. It’s more of a chant and drone, and not what I think of when I think of Brazil, whether the Indian tribes or down town Sao Paulo. You might like it, but to me it’s an example of the excesses of hippie culture.
Thankfully, “Elixir” is a prime piece of world music at a time before the genre was known as such. It’s free jazz, but with unity and variety in the accompaniment. Though it doesn’t have a strong tonal center, it’s not atonal. “Manusha Ragakamboji” is even better, and the best track on side one. I wrote “spooky”. This track might transport you back a thousand years and plop you down in the East.
“Relativity Suite” takes up all of side 2 and draws on diverse influences. It’s easier for you to find a sample and put your own labels on it. It reminds me of Philip Glass meets John Shaft, Bob Marley and Dizzy Gillespie. There’s free jazz, minimalism, Indian influences and a bit of flower-power here. Strange at times, but very rewarding.
Side 3 and 4 are harder for me to categorize. I’m not a musicologist, with limited exposure to this genre. Trying to describe the style of these tracks is difficult. Side 3 opens with a frenetic, atonal, free-jazz trumpet solo, but then quickly switches gears to voice and flute and a floral “eastern” melody. The entire side is continuous, with one tune flowing into the next. “Terry’s Tune” (version one), “Hope” and “The Creator Has A Master Plan” are cut from the same cloth. That continues onto side four. Much of side 3 and 4 are similar.
Side four includes contributions from a fifty piece youth orchestra that was recorded at a youth music camp. Short snippets were passed out to the youths and were encouraged to listen to each other and gel as a unit, with Cherry singing, playing piano and trumpet.
The last track is “Reza”. It, along with “Elixir”, “Manusha” and “Relativity Suite” is the strongest, most distinct music in this set. “Reza” begins with a western-classical sounding prelude on harmonium, and then shifts to an Indian style with tablas and tambura, with a choir made of elementary school teachers.
It’s difficult music to describe. Many will hate it. Some will love it. I enjoyed several tracks, while others were too similar and repetitious (Philip Glass comes to mind). If you enjoy the more difficult ECM recordings, or you love Indian music, then you should check it out. There’s thought-provoking music here, some of which is very enjoyable.
The sound varies from track to track. Very little was recorded in “controlled” conditions; most was recorded at impromptu musical sessions, documentary style. As such, the sound is organic, just like the music. There is depth and air, just like a concert hall, but not much outside the speakers. It’s not an audiophile spectacular. It is, as the title implies, organic.
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